Recently I went to a presentation which had me feeling unsafe. The presenter asked us to write a personal statement (about our business niche) on an index card and place it in a basket at the front of the room after we came back from a break. He didn’t tell us what what he was going to do with those statements or how they would be used in the session. So I decided that I didn’t want to do it.

I declined to do the exercise because I didn’t want to be “called out” in front of the group. I didn’t want the presenter to pick out MY card and read my statement and then say, “Whose is this?”, and begin to pick apart my words and thoughts. I wasn’t ready for that yet, not in a room of 85 or so people. Even if the exercise would help me.

Later, after the session, I found and read Dawn E. Shrader’s 2004 paper on “Intellectual Safety, Moral Atmosphere, and Epistemology in College Classrooms” via the university library, and it mentioned the idea of having a “safety net” in the classroom.

Had a safety net been in place in that presentation? Not yet, because:

  • The presenter stood on a dais above us throughout the session which created a power imbalance and helped confirm it as actually a presentation instead of a workshop or a collaborative learning space
  • The room was set up in classroom style, with all of us on chairs facing the presenter; again, not collaborative
  • The presenter had already given several examples of “bad” niches, so we knew that there definitely were “wrong answers” (and maybe mine was going to be one of them) and, most importantly,
  • The presenter hadn’t told us how he was going to use the index card information when he asked us to provide it to him, thus leaving us to wonder or guess at what the use was going to be (and worry about it)

In short, I had no trust in the presenter and I didn’t want to participate. Did I miss out later because my card wasn’t called? Maybe. But in feeling unsafe I had calculated the risks and decided not to participate.

Safety in adult learning environments has a different meaning than safety elsewhere, say on construction sites. But not thinking about safety as facilitators also has potentially disastrous consequences, including high participant fear levels, lack of trust in our skills and process, and lower participation. I think it could even have more far-reaching consequences beyond the end of the session, and I’d be curious to hear more about you think in the comments.

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